How zoning bylaws created a food desert in Guelph’s east end

Residents in the east end of the city have no local grocery store — and the only commercially zoned property there sits vacant. So how do you fix a food desert?
By Brianna Bell - Published on June 19, 2019
shopping carts
In many Ontario municipalities, food deserts have been legislated into existence by restrictive zoning bylaws. (iStock.com/serts)

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GUELPH — Last year, Alina Kislenko and her husband, Matt Goetz, bought their first home, in Guelph’s east end, leaving the bustle of downtown for quieter residential streets.

The couple, both psychotherapists, love their new community, with its nearby walking trails and friendly neighbours. There’s just one problem: Kislenko has a visual disability that prevents her from driving, and Goetz works long hours downtown — and their neighbourhood doesn’t have a grocery store. So they drive more than eight kilometres to shop at the Walmart Supercentre in Guelph’s north end.

According to local councillor Dan Gibson, the east end, with its 6,000 homes, constitutes a “food desert,” meaning that it doesn’t offer sufficient access to affordable and nutritious food. The vast majority of residents there, he says, rely on cars and buses to get their groceries. And although locals have complained about the situation for years, nothing has changed. That’s because, experts say, in Guelph — as in other Ontario municipalities — food deserts have essentially been legislated into existence by restrictive zoning bylaws.

“Zoning bylaws, by their nature, determine which uses are permitted on a given site,” says Graeme Stewart, director of the Toronto-based non-profit Centre for Urban Growth and Renewal. Zoning, he says, was initially designed to combat public-health crises caused by noxious fumes near homes. “What that led to, mainly in communities built since the Second World War, was a radical segregation of uses,” he says. “Zoning can be a really powerful tool to shape local economies.”

In east Guelph, only one property, on the corner of Starwood Drive and Watson Parkway, is commercially zoned. Owned by Loblaw Companies Limited, the lot, which has been zoned commercial since 2002, sits vacant. Gibson believes the reason the company hasn’t made any move to develop it is that there’s a Loblaw-owned Zehrs superstore only 4.3 kilometres away.

“What has happened is Loblaws has been allowed to invest in their Eramosa store,” he says. “And because they know we’re all already driving to the Eramosa store, they are really having a hard time justifying building another store in the east end.” In an emailed statement to TVO.org, a representative for Loblaw wrote, “We don’t have anything new to share about this property at this time.”

With the neighbourhood’s current zoning, Gibson says, the only way east Guelph will get a permanent grocery store is if Loblaw shifts its corporate direction.

But fixing the problem isn’t a simple matter. “The thing to note is a zoning change is really complicated and really expensive,” Stewart says. “And, usually, it’s large developers who are doing housing redevelopment. They’re often the ones who can pay for all the lawyers.”

There are options, though. A municipality’s official plan, which guides land use, is a “powerful tool,” says Shannon Holness, a community planner with the Toronto Community Benefit Network. A local government could, for example, use its plan to prioritize grocery stores in future developments.

Gibson, for his part, has spent much of his time in council advocating for an extensive commercial-policy review that would offer new opportunities to commercial developers. The more land there is available to businesses, he reasons, the likelier it is that a new grocery store will open.

Private industry can also offer some solutions. In Ottawa, MarketMobile, which parks walk-in grocery trucks in neighbourhoods in need, has nine locations to serve residents. (According to Holness, mobile markets require only a permit.)

Last year, the Seed, a local non-profit initiative, launched a pop-up-market pilot project in the east end, opening one at an area school one night each week. With prices set on a sliding scale, patrons could choose what they’d pay based on their budget. The pilot wasn’t immediately extended, as the group wanted to study the results. According to the Seed’s directing coordinator, Gavin Dandy, though, the group has almost completed the planning process for this year. “We hope to be starting the new market in the next two months,” he says.

Kislenko says that a once-weekly produce market doesn’t do enough to address the lack of food options in the east end. “Once a week is hard to work into your grocery schedule and makes it so you need to go to two places for groceries, which is unrealistic for a lot of people,” she says. Kislenko, who is on the autism spectrum, often runs out of produce too early in the week, “which is tough,” she says, “as those with autism and ADHD often have unique nutritional needs.”

This week, the federal government announced steps to address food insecurity. On Monday, Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau unveiled details of a “national food policy,” a $134 million plan that earmarks $50 million for local initiatives such as greenhouses and farmers’ markets.

And more change may be coming in Guelph. Last summer, council voted unanimously to change the official city plan: it has committed to introducing new bylaws that will rezone land from residential to mixed-use in the city’s east end. However, Gibson says, both the timeline and the specifics remain unclear.

“The next step is our official plan will be updated to include this new zoning, which is not a huge hurdle,” he says. “But it will take about a year to update the official plan to acknowledge this new zoning.”

Kislenko is excited by the prospect of one day being able to walk to the grocery store. “If more amenities were within walking distance,” she says, “there could be more of a walking culture, which is good for the environment and building community relationships.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article suggested that Alina Kislenko and Matt Goetz had no alternative but to get their groceries at Walmart; in fact, there is a Zehr's supermarket closer to their home. TVO.org regrets the error.

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